Faith as a doing?

Having waited in vain for response to one of the editors’ calling Herman Hoeksema’s denial that faith is a work “nonsense,” with an exclamation point (see the Standard Bearer, vol. 95, no. 12, p. 279), I am compelled to write in protest. (I confess that I hesitate still, even though my name has been raised, because the entire, ongoing debate over good works is a “red herring” among us. The debate over works in the Christian life was occasioned by a sermon on John 14:6 that was not in error on the matter of antinomism, indeed had nothing whatever to do with antinomism. By the judgment of the Synod of 2017, the error was a compromising of salvation by grace. Introduction of the error of antinomism into the debate was flagrant misleading of the PRC—a “red herring.” Carrying on this debate, as though this were the issue in the sermon judged in 2017, is foolishness on our part. I now participate in the foolishness.) Nevertheless, since in the course of the mistaken, and completely unnecessary, debate about works and working Hoeksema’s explanation of faith as our doing “nothing” has been dismissed and demeaned as “nonsense,” I call for an apology. I doubt that in all his public writing and speaking, much less preaching, Hoeksema ever uttered nonsense, much less nonsense deserving of an exclamation point. Undoubtedly, he was in error on occasion. But “nonsense,” never. Not even his avowed foes accused him of nonsense.

What aggravates the offense of charging him with “nonsense” is that Hoeksema wrote the statement thus ridiculed in the heat of the controversy in the Protestant Reformed Churches over faith as the gift of God or faith as a condition that man must fulfill for salvation. The statement, therefore, would have represented his care­ful, studied conviction regarding the crucial issue in a controversy that concerned the grace of salvation. To dismiss such a statement as “nonsense” is at the very least to jeopardize Hoeksema’s and the Protestant Re­formed Churches’ confession that faith is not a condition—a work of man—unto salvation, but the gracious gift of God.

What Hoeksema meant, what the statement means, and what I believe and defend is that faith is not a “do­ing” by the sinner that, as a “doing,” contributes to his righteousness or accomplishes his salvation along with the doing of Jesus Christ. Righteousness is not by faith and by faith’s “doing.” It is not by faith as man’s doing. It is as gravely erroneous to make faith man’s saving “doing,” whether with or without the help of God, as it is to teach justification by faith and by the sinner’s working (“doing”).

In the matter of righteousness with God, any as­pect of salvation, and the obtaining of eternal life, salvation is by faith alone—faith as the bond of union with Christ, faith that then becomes active in knowing Christ and resting upon Him by the working in the elect sinner of the Holy Ghost. A “working” of the sinner is excluded. His working follows, as fruit of faith (see Rom. 7:4; Eph. 2:10; Belgic Confession, Articles 22–24). Our working accomplishes nothing of our salvation, including our working the work of faith. Faith is the God-given means of our salvation. It is not a work of ours upon which salvation depends, or a work of ours that cooperates with grace, or the means of salvation by virtue of its being a working of ours.

Whatever the Philippian jailor had in mind with his question, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), Paul’s response, “Believe,” meant: “Do not work for salvation. Man’s working is not the way to be saved. The sole way to be saved is by believing.” And this be­lieving, although it is obviously spiritual activity by the believer, is, in reality and emphatically, a not-working.

It may count for something that I call attention to the fact that I confessed and explained faith as a not-working long ago in the pages of the Standard Bearer:

As the activity of the elect sinner, faith is not on his part the doing of a work alongside or along with the work of God in Christ, but the utter renunciation of all human work, including believing as a human work, and a relying on the work of God in Christ alone. It is of the essence of faith to renounce every work, and all working of the sinner himself, including repenting and believing, as earning, contributing to, conditioning, or making effectual the saving work of God in Christ, whether the saving work of God in Christ is viewed as justification, membership in the covenant, or the blessings of the covenant (Standard Bearer, vol. 79, no. 20, pp. 465–66).

There are two conceivable ways of being saved: working (doing) and believing. Believing is not only a not-working (but a resting, a resting on the work and working of Jesus Christ). It is also the conscious, de­liberate, total rejection and renunciation of working, including faith as a working.

To make this utter renunciation of working a novel form of working is a complete, and dangerous, misun­derstanding of faith and faith’s activity, namely, the activity of not working.

Faith is not another human work that cooperates with the work of Christ in accomplishing the salvation of the sinner. Faith is not the means of salvation as a human “doing.” The gospel of grace rejects all human working as contributing to salvation, including faith as a human “doing.”

To contend that, because faith always “does,” that is, works, salvation is by faith and faith’s “doing,” or that salvation is by faith as a “doing” is ominously similar to Rome’s argument that, because faith loves, salvation is by faith and love. Faith does indeed love, but justifi­cation is by faith alone, without its loving (on our part). So also, faith always works (does), but salvation is by faith alone, without its works and working (by us).

The fear, or accusation, as the case may be, that Hoeksema, and we who stand with him on the issue, are hereby constrained to answer those who ask, “what shall I do to be saved?” (in any sense whatever) with the absurd words, “do nothing,” displays ignorance of the truth of the matter. Perhaps then, this response to the fear, or accusation, may help to achieve unity among us: to everyone who asks, “what must I do to be saved?” the loud, clear, unembarrassed, urgent answer is, “repent of your sins and believe on Jesus Christ crucified and ris­en!” (with an exclamation point). And this answer is, in fact, the emphatic declaration, “Do nothing!” (with an exclamation point). “Do nothing!” “Do absolutely nothing!”

The issue of salvation by faith as a human “doing” or by faith as a not-doing was settled at the Synod of Dordt. The decision of Dordt was reaffirmed by the Protestant Reformed “Declaration of Principles” in the early 1950s.

Prof. David J. Engelsma



Brother Engelsma:

You are right, I should not have responded to Hoeksema’s statement “We must do nothing” with the retort “Nonsense!” The retort was unbecoming and something on which H.H.’s critics would pounce. In fact, af­ter I submitted my response, and then read it later in the SB, I chided myself and wished I had written some­thing along these lines instead, “With all due respect, I disagree with Hoeksema’s explanation of the apostle’s response to the Philippian jailor, namely, “you are to do nothing,” as if that was the emphasis and what the apostle was seeking to convey.” As I stated in a later response, I esteem H.H. highly and am in agreement all down the line with his dogmatics and the theology he championed at great cost. He deserved better from my pen. My apologies to our readers.

That said, before I deal with the essence of your let­ter, a couple of other matters. First, let me state that I take exception to your statement that one of the editors (namely myself) was guilty of “calling Herman Hoeksema’s denial that faith is a work ‘nonsense.’” That I never did. Of course, faith is not a work. And to sug­gest it should be viewed as such would make one guilty of heresy. What I disagreed with was H.H.’s explanation that what the apostle required of the Philippian jailor in response to the gospel call was that he was to “do noth­ing.” And that is a different issue. Let us not forget that no less worthy than Calvin had a much different view than Hoeksema when it came to explaining the spirit behind the same question asked by Jews of the apostles on Pentecost and then the apostolic response informing them what they were to do. I refer all once again to Calvin’s sermon on Acts 2:36–37, a passage with striking similarities to the Acts 16 passage. I trust we are not going to charge Calvin with being guilty of turning repentance and faith into works or a new works-righteousness after all.

The issue of antinomianism

Second, I take exception to the notion that the issue of antinomianism was extraneous to this controversy with its ensuring debate. Contrary to your assertion, it was not a “red herring.” It was plain from the outset that the orthodoxy of the phrase “in the way of” was part of what was being challenged, as in, “Is fellowship with God (its ongoing enjoyment), as well as reassuring one that he is a believer, to be found (experienced) in the way of obedience? And, is obedience unto godliness (that is, the ‘must’ of good works) to be preached and exhorted with that reality in mind?”

That the above assertion is true is clear from what is found in various documents treated by our broader assemblies over the past few years. Even after the 2018 synodical decisions declared the phrase “in the way of” to be orthodox and useful in explaining the necessary relation between the godly life and the blessings of sal­vation, the issue has not been laid to rest. A signifi­cant amount of time had to be spent by our most recent synod dealing with protests and appeals that continued in various ways to challenge the legitimate use of that phrase.

Simply put, to challenge the orthodoxy of the phrase “in the way of,” as it ties in with the benefits and ne­cessity of good works in the life of the Christian, opens the door to antinomianism. And where that error is present, hyper-Calvinism with its opposition to the Re­formed truth of ‘duty faith’ rears its head as well.

My raising the issue of antinomianism in my first ar­ticle in the SB on the Fourth Head of the Canons of Dordt was neither a “red-herring,” nor was it an implied disagreement with the decisions of the 2018 Synod, as some have insinuated.

I was assigned the Fourth Head (on Irresistible Grace) for the SB as we marked the 400th anniversa­ry of the Canons. It cannot be denied that the Fourth Head was drawn up as it was, in part, to refute the Arminian charge that the rigorous Calvinism of the truly Reformed and its emphasis on election and sovereign grace would lead to antinomianism and what is now known as a ‘hyper-Calvinism.’ Claimed the Arminians, the fullness of the gospel call to faith and repentance would be truncated. Men would be viewed as mere in­capable, unresponsive ‘stocks and blocks.’ Scriptural phrases such as “whosoever wills” and “Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die, O house of Israel” would be rendered suspect, either muted or altogether ignored in the gospel calls. Such declarations would, by the Cal­vinists, be judged to place too much emphasis on the calling and necessary response of man to these gospel exhortations and calls.

Not so, as the Fourth Head makes plain (III/IV, 17 and V, 14). Why not? Because the Holy Spirit, who sets free the will of the elect, is pleased to use these exhortations to weigh upon their hearts and consciences in order to bring about conversion and prompt the activity, the response of faith (believing).

And, it was with the Canons in mind, as I was writ­ing my October 1, 2018 SB editorial, that I could agree with the doctrinal decisions drawn up by the 2018 Synod. I did not judge them to hinder or fetter the freedom of the gospel call with its command to all and sundry to repent and believe.

Nonetheless, if we learn anything from history, it is that the threat of the ‘hyper’ mentality has remained a very real threat to Reformed orthodoxy. And it has not been unknown in our own churches. In the mid-1980s, Classis West dealt exactly with that error in one of our churches, as some sought to mute the full gospel preach­ing with its exhortations and warnings. We both served as delegates at that Classis, as I recall. And others of our colleagues can tell us, they have had on occasion to deal with this same mentality in their pastoral min­istries.

So, a reminder in my October 1, 2018 article that the Canons, though a 400-year-old document, have always been and still remain “in season.”

As to faith and doing

Now back to your letter and your contention that faith is not to be referred to as a ‘doing.’ You state, “[Faith] is not a work of ours upon which salvation depends, or a work of ours that cooperates with grace, or the means of salvation by virtue of its being a working of ours.”

Dominating that sentence is the word “work,” de­claring that faith is not a work, our work, in any sense of the word. With that I agree. The activity of faith to which the gospel calls us is not to be confused with a work, our working, in any shape or form. Faith is cer­tainly not some kind of a new, substitute work, a “doing” on which our salvation now depends. Such would smack of conditional theology. Neither have I used such language, as I have stated more than once.

But your point is that to refer to faith as a “doing” on our part in any sense would imply that faith is a work after all, and, therefore, the word “doing” in connection with faith must be erased from our vocabulary. Others in our circles have expressed the same conviction.

Having read the objections and fears of yourself and others, perhaps it is time to cease referring to faith as a “doing” lest it appear we have turned faith into a work­ing. This in the interests of removing this as an issue creating division in our churches and bringing unity again. For my part, I am willing to do that.

However, that said, I note that you were compelled to refer to faith as an activity, in fact, as the believer’s activity. You state, “And this believing, although it is obviously spiritual activity by the believer [!], is, in real­ity and emphatically, a not-working.”

I note that you do not call believing an activity “in the believer,” nor even “of the believer” but “by the believer.” Precisely correct, the language that is to be maintained at all costs. Exactly my point and concern from the beginning.

It is that perspective, that believing is a spiritual activity by the believer, that brings us to what I am convinced is at stake in this whole controversy and re­sulting debate. In the interests of eliciting and calling forth that activity, namely, the response of one actively and consciously believing and laying hold upon Jesus as one’s only hope and righteousness, the question has become, what phrases will be countenanced and consid­ered orthodox in our midst? I must admit I have begun to wonder whether even that phrase, “laying hold upon Jesus,” is not suspect with some these days. After all, it refers not just to the eye of faith and looking to Je­sus, but to the hand of faith (cf. Belgic Conf., Art. 22) reaching out like the women with the issue of blood to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment—a gospel passage that is filled with practical applications to those sitting under gospel preaching with its call. The use of such phrases in our preaching as they are found in Scripture, phras­es formulated by a passage itself, ought not be, must not be, rendered suspect of being unorthodox, as if they somehow magnify man and make salvation dependent on man.

That said, my chief concern is the freedom of lan­guage in the call of the gospel on the mission fields.

Are missionaries, when approached by those who come with the same question as that of the Jews on Pen­tecost and of the Philippian jailor, asking “What must we do?” to have the boldness simply to say, “You must repent! You must believe!”

Early in his sermon on the Philippian jailor, Hoeksema states that members of his congregation would say, “But dominie, we must believe!” To whom he says he responded, “No! No, we mustn’t believe. Why don’t you say, we do believe (emphasis H.H.).” He said this, no doubt, due to a fear that some had a conditional cov­enant mentality.

To be sure, in a congregation of believers such might be an appropriate response due to certain misconcep­tions some have, though even there, surely, neither the “must” of repentance, nor the “must” of believing to this or that word of God must be thought out of place. But it is entirely another matter to respond that way on a mission field. For the apostle to have responded to the as yet unbelieving Philippian jailor in his perplexi­ty with the words, “You have faith,” would have been completely improper.

The calling actively to believe, confessing Jesus as God’s Christ and one’s own Savior, had to be laid upon the jailor. In similar fashion, the repentance unto faith had to be called forth in the Jews who in Acts 2 asked that same question. In neither instance did the apostles say, “Do nothing” or, “There is nothing you are called to do.”

In their preaching the apostles certainly would have made the point that for salvation there was nothing that a man could do or imagine he should do to make himself worthy of salvation and righteousness. Not even one’s faith. It is in and of and by Christ and His work alone. That is gospel truth. Either this truth would have been brought home to the hearers previous to the command to repent (as in the Acts 2 account), or it would have to be brought home following the gospel imperative, “Be­lieve” (as in the Acts 16 account). But faced with that question “Sirs, what must we do?” by inquirers not yet believers, “Do nothing” was not the apostolic response or words.

Why not?

Because the impression must not be left with the in­quirers that not only was there nothing they could do to make themselves worthy of salvation, but neither was there anything further required of them. “What must you do, you ask. Nothing, nothing further is required of you.” As if it was enough that they realized they were guilty sinners and worthy of God’s wrath for their past lives and deeds.

Not so. Something was yet required of them, namely, a response, the proper response to the call of the gospel, which is to say, heart-felt repentance to be expressed in the one instance and faith as believing in the other (two sides of the same coin). And such a response is not a nothing, it is something.

Who can deny that faith, faith as believing in the Je­sus as Lord and Savior, is the proper response to the gospel call, or is what the command of the gospel requires of the hearer? It is urgent, while it is yet “to­day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb. 4:7), lest one be charged in the day of days with not obeying the command of the gospel (Rom. 10:16). It is what the Holy Spirit by the call of gospel and its command draws out of the regenerated person whose heart He has pricked by the gospel truth proclaimed (Acts 2:37). It is the solemn responsibility to be laid by the gospel preacher upon everyone who comes under the gospel call. And until one is willing to express this faith and believing under the promiscuous call of the gospel, one cannot consider himself to be saved. Without this response, it is evident that the Spirit has not yet made one willing in the day of His power.

This is the freedom of the call of the gospel which gospel preachers must have. For my part I am con­vinced we can do that without referring to faith and believing as a “doing.” But we cannot do that if we deny the calling of the gospel preacher to make plain to the troubled inquirer that there is a proper, necessary response required of (by) him, namely, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ as the one only ground of and hope for salvation with God.

Faith as believing: a spiritual activity by the believer. With that I am in complete agreement. If we agree on that, as apparently we do, we are in basic agreement both as to faith and the preaching that the Holy Spirit is pleased to use to draw His gift of faith into proper activity and expression.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Rev. Kenneth Koole